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Should priests be paid to pray?

By Cole Hartin

One of my first summer jobs in high school was as a landscaper for a psychologist’s practice on the outskirts of my hometown. I did all the usual maintenance work: mowing the massive lawn, raking leaves, weeding flower beds. Once in a while I would take on a bigger project if asked. I was always given orders to make sure I accomplished all the work; I could work whenever I wanted, and when I was tired I could go home. I just needed to make sure I finished the work each week. That meant there were many long days, and some days when I wouldn’t go in at all. I remember my father, seeing me at home one Wednesday, asking me when I would get a real job that meant working 9 to 5, five days a week, much like his job on the automotive assembly line.

Many years later, I still haven’t had much of a real job at all. In the past several years my employment has been a patchwork of little positions at the college, with my parish, in IT, and at coffee shops. My hours are not regular, some days are extremely long, and on some days I do very little. I very often work evenings and weekends, and my day off is usually during the week. September, December, and March tend to be packed full, whereas there is not much going on at all in June and July. As I look forward to ordination (God willing) and settling into a clerical “career,” I don’t see myself entering the real job my father described, but only continuing with this patchwork schedule — even though I will be devoted to parish ministry exclusively.

The vocation of the priest or pastor can be difficult to pin down. By vocation, I mean the daily shape of ordained life. A priest is a priest no matter the employer, and yet for many, ordained ministry, in addition to being a vocation (something metaphysical or not), is a job.[1]

But should a priest be paid to pray?

This question haunts me in part because I come from a family (probably like most families in this respect) in which prayer — public and private — is something offered to God above and beyond the weekly round of work. My father was not able to stop the assembly line to say morning or midday prayer. Even if he could, this wouldn’t be “working time” but would stall the day’s progress, leading to later nights. I think the same could be said for most working-class people who don’t have the flexibility that some professionals enjoy.

This question has pressed on me more heavily as I have seen parishes amalgamating, scraping together finances to afford a part-time priest, and as I have watched my colleagues in seminary coming to terms with a key reality: they’ve invested significant money and time in study, but it’s very possible that they will be applying for part-time ministry jobs that won’t make ends meet. In short: finances are tight, and staffing is lean.

Should a priest then be paid to say the evening office alone in the sanctuary before driving home? Or are daily rounds of prayer something that ought to be offered “off the clock,” part of a priest’s vocation, yes, but not part of the job?

These questions aren’t rhetorical; I really wonder what to do. I realize, for instance, that prayer is work in some sense (“the work of God” in St. Benedict’s Rule). Perhaps divvying up a holistic vocation into its various parts is artificial. However, it seems most clergy are not paid to be whatever it is they are, but they are paid to do certain things: preach, teach, plan and celebrate the liturgy, visit parishioners, oversee the everyday workings of the parish, network with colleagues, serve their bishop, and so forth. I think in this respect clerical life is more akin to that of the scholar or the lawyer (or even to my example of the gardener). The priest does not merely put in time until 5 p.m., but has certain tasks to accomplish. Sometimes a priest can finish a day’s work in shorter hours, but often these hours stretch out late into the evening.

Still, the lawyers and scholars in our parishes come to the Eucharist each week after their work is done, and they pray (or we hope they pray) in the morning and in the evening, reading the Scriptures too. How can we provide a good model to them as pastors when the activities we commend to them are simply part of our job? How can we expect others to offer themselves to be formed by a life of prayer, immersed in Scripture, when they can’t fathom anyone doing this save their priest, who is merely doing the day’s work? I am afraid that the greatest possible witness against priests has nothing to do with their theology, but their laziness.

The truth is, I don’t know how this life of prayer works itself out in the myriad parishes throughout the Anglican Communion (or in other churches, for that matter). And I know too, that burnout is a real problem for clergy. Keeping prayer within the bounds of the job, then — as well as other healthy practices such as little retreats, reading in the office for one’s edification, taking midday walks during office hours, etc. — partly prevents clerical exhaustion. In his beautiful little catalogue of priestly duties, A Priest to the Temple, George Herbert gives significant attention to leisure. The priest

sometimes refresheth himselfe, as knowing that nature will not bear everlasting droopings, and that pleasantnesse of disposition is a great key to do good; not onely because all men shun the company of perpetuall severity, but also for that when they are in company, instructions seasoned with pleasantnesse, both enter sooner, and roote deeper.

Further, Herbert suggests it is good to study other things, like anatomy and basic medicine, so that reading and “knowing of herbs may be done at such times, as they may be an help, and a recreation to more divine studies, Nature serving Grace both in comfort of diversion, and the benefit of application when need requires.”[2] In both these instances, there is benefit in taking it easy, for the good of the cleric and the people. A priest must seldom be rushed, seldom be reactionary, but rather must have a quiet mind to attend to the work God has given.

I wonder if clergy ought to be paid to pray to challenge the modern commodification of work. Work, scripturally speaking, is never meant to sacrifice human flourishing for some other end. For what else do we live for, besides loving God and loving neighbor? Therefore, if our work and busy schedules prevent us from having time to pray, perhaps it’s not the kind of work we should be doing, at least in the way we are doing it. This isn’t even primarily a Christian vision of work; I think the best humanists see that work isn’t an end in itself, and producing something is not a worthy telos. Rather, work and production are meant to foster space for human well-being.

In the frenetic pace of our cities, where people are having nervous breakdowns during their three-hour commutes, so that they can afford a tiny apartment suspended over concrete, metal, and glass, intentionally setting up clerical life as a slow and to some extent “unproductive” antidote might offer a gleam of hope. Maybe the clerical life can even be a shining beacon: our pay is meagre, but we live within the parish bounds, take time to pray and think, and we do this in defiance of the norms of society precisely because the society has lost sight of what it means to be human in a very real sense.

Overworking or underworking are likely to draw criticism, and probably should. Is there an ideal then, for clergy, especially with respect to prayer? Is it part of our job? Or something that we do after our daily labour? And who decides? Our bishops? Or the parishioners to whom we are responsible?

I ask these hard questions with the hope that the ensuing conversations generate more insight than I am able to muster.

[divider]Footnotes[/divider]

[1] Fr. Rob Price took up one aspect of this here.

[2] George Herbert, The Complete English Poems, ed. John Tobin, 1 edition. (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), pp. 241-2, and 235.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I would certainly like to see parish clergy take seriously the traditional and canonical expectation that Daily Morning and Evening Prayer be offered in their churches. Most of the time this will probably start with the priest singing the Office by himself, but it would be far better to recruit lay (and assisting clergy) leadership to officiate and assist with these services. I do think the priest should normally attend as well, so yes, I think they should be “paid to pray” (not receive a per-task payment, of course, but be expected to include at least this type of prayer in the duties that are part of his stipendiary role). But managing the daily round of public prayers should be the more important part of the job.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I think priests pray no matter what: Samuel’s example (God forbid that I should cease to pray for you) is for the priest. But as St. Paul says, it is appropriate that clergy should receive compensation for doing what they do. The church should recognize that it probably isn’t paying enough already, of course. But whether and when the daily office is offered in the parish is an expectation the Vestry should work out with the clergyperson, and the church should consider it part of what they’re paying for.

  3. I’ve never thought of being paid to be a priest at all. I was taught that to be paid for such a thing is close to simony. I alway tell people I’m given a stipend to live on so that I have time to do the work of ministry/ a priest.

  4. I think that intercession is actually at the heart of all priestly ministries. It is neither prelude to other activities nor postlude. It is actually the main event out of which flows the rest of one’s service- both to God and to people. Prayer provides the divine fuel necessary not only to do other things as the fruit of prayer, but-really- it is intercessory prayer that actually makes other ministries possible. God changes both us and our circumstances through prayer. Prayer is God’s chosen instrument to accomplish that which no other Christian discipline can accomplish. So, in a sense, we are “paid to pray” because we need prayer to do everything else that may have more obvious value. But also because prayer itself is God’s divine instrument through which His work is accomplished.

  5. I think we must look at the ordination vows as one of our guides in answering these questions. We promise to “persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God’s grace, both for [ourselves] and for others, offering all [our] labors to God…” which would seem to suggest that prayer is part of the job. And yet we also promise to pattern our lives and that of our families on Christ’s example, which seems like more private work (for example, disciplining your child in a godly way would be ‘off the clock,’ no?). The conversation about whether or not priests are paid enough to be full-time seems like an entirely different matter – I wouldn’t want to see a theological rationale (all people should pray; priests are people; therefore we should not pray on the clock) be used in service of what is actually an economic reality (many churches simply can’t afford to pay a full time priest).

  6. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    I guess there is a lot I didn’t qualify. For example, is there a difference between private prayer and public? And I’ve kind of assumed in this piece that a priest will have enough support so that she can afford a living (which is less in less common in Canada, anyways).

    Also, I am thinking a lot about the people in parishes who work blue collar jobs, start early, commute, and get home late. I cringe a little bit when I think there might be a priest who slides into the office at 9:30am to comfortably move through morning prayer, have a long lunch, and then is home in time for supper, all the while exhorting parishioners to pray while they struggle to make a modest home. I don’t know.

    At the same time, especially after thinking this through some more, and seeing some of the response, especially from Bishop Greg and Mtr. (I assume) Emily, that aside from pragmatic concerns about finances, prayerfulness is at the heart of the Christian life, especially clerical life, and so it is at once the most fundamental work we can do, and in many ways precedes any thought about employment status. Emily, I thought bringing ordination vows into the picture was wise and helpful.

    Anyways, I was surprised to see such diverse perspectives – from thinking about money related to prayer is a simony, to assuming that of course a part prayer is foundational to the work of the priest. I expect views are even more diverse across the Church. I think being able to articulate clearly what the relationship is to employment and priestly vocation is helpful, if only so that both clerics and lay people can be confident about what happens in a parish. I grew up in a family without any knowledge of what clergy did during the week, and so many men in my church were suspicious about their pastor’s increasing salary. I think if they knew what a clerical life looked like, and the theological reasons so much time was given to prayer and study, they would better be able to support their ministers.

  7. That this question even needs to be asked demonstrates that we call currently suffer a shockingly blinkered understanding not only of the ordained life, but broader Christian vocation, and the very nature of prayer itself.

    Prayer is at the bedrock of what we do. As you so rightly point out, a parish priest (or any priest) praying only in his or her spare time is burnout waiting to happen and, frankly, a danger to the Church. A Church that discourages its clergy from prayer in any way is a Church unmoored from its primary relationship and calling, and is a threat to the clergy and itself.

    Put more positively, not only should we be paid to pray while “on the clock,” we should be paid to lead those we serve into a life of prayer. And sometimes that leading is a simple as witnessing to our own prayer life.

    Where did I get that? Take another look at those pesky ordination vows.

    Cramner’s intention behind the Daily Office was to encourage a whole nation to pattern its life around prayer. As part of a religious community, I still find myself in the trap of considering how I will fit the Office into a busy schedule, which has things precisely backwards. It should not surprise me (though it still does) that saying the Office regularly and deliberately often improves my efficiency, attention, and productivity in all other work.

    And then, of course, there’s Paul (writing not just to clergy, but the whole Church, in one of the earliest writings of the New Testament):

    “Pray with ceasing” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17

    If we but took him seriously in that…

  8. There is no clock. The idea of being “on the clock” or “off the clock” is a concept that we borrowed from industry, and that does not serve us very well. In fact, the idea of “full time” or “part time” (which is church-speak for full-time work without full-time pay) seems unhelpful to me.

    When you greet a parishioner in the grocery store and learn about his mother’s ill-health, is that “on the clock” or “off the clock”? When your friend who also goes to your church is in the hospital, is your visit “on the clock” or “off the clock”? There’s no clock.

    I agree with the previous comment that we are paid a stipend, not a wage. We are given money to support ourselves and our families so that we are able to devote ourselves fully to the work that we have committed ourselves to do. That’s what makes things difficult for “part time” clergy — there is no clock, so how can we measure what half-time or quarter-time would be. (In fairness, I have no solution for the quandary of churches that cannot afford “full-time” clergy. I wish that I did.) The forty-hour work week and the two-day weekend are the legacies of the industrial labor reform movements of the late nineteenth century. The concept just doesn’t transfer very well to the church. Case and point, the Bible suggests that we get one day off per week, not two.

    My dilemma is whether or not we should receive honoraria for weddings and funerals. Surely, there should be no charge to access the sacraments. But, at the same time, when a family is spending vast sums of money on a wedding worthy of a king’s court, isn’t it okay for them to give the priest something in exchange for him/her missing time with their family, and breaking their normal sabbath rhythms on their behalf. I receive them gratefully, but always with a bit of thought as to whether I should.

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